Real-time retail & stranger things

Execution: The "demogorgon" of the shopper journey

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The brand/retail experience is all in the delivery, which of course is all in the execution. This is more complicated than ever in today’s “omnichannel” world. This is not a relatively simple matter of just delivering brand messages, be they ads or promotions, at every touch point.

Ominchannel is not the same thing as omnimedia. The word “channel” not only connotes media channels; more important, it encompasses transactional channels — that is, retail in all its multi-tentacled iterations.

Digital media are inherently transactional. They are invariably about the exchange of something, be that entertainment, information, conversation, goods or services. In the early days of the web, many saw cyberspace as the second coming of television, and a new way to convey advertising. It can be that, for sure. But as we all now know, it is so much more than that. It is now so deeply and prominently embedded in our world, and daily lives.

As a run-up to our Confabs, we reached out by email to chief marketing officers and others responsible for the brand/retail experience in their organizations and asked: What are your top priorities relative to the brand/retail experience? We received 28 responses, representing a cross-section of categories including hospitality, retail, food service, packaged goods, automotive, technology, financial services, media, e-commerce, beverage alcohol, musical instruments, and apparel.

Give the people what they want, when they want it. The most frequent response involved some variation on the imperative to “give people what they want, when, where and how they want it.” Several respondents expressed the concept as “real-time retail,” delivered via a deft combination of digital and in-store experiences. Such alignment clearly is a prerequisite of every brand in today’s “omnichannel” world.

A marketing chief at a major retailer expressed this as “leaning into the opportunities in the intersection of physical and digital retail.” Another respondent, the CMO of a luxury brand, took the idea a step further, stating an objective to “bring our brand story to life in a relevant way across each touch point (from awareness building, to digital, to in-store, to after the sale),” adding: “The biggest priorities are to (completely!) “reinvent both digital and retail at the same time, and design them to be absolutely synergistic. When implemented, the customer will flow from digital to retail to digital in an absolutely seamless manner.”

Implementation is the “demogorgon” of the brand/retail experience. In a follow-up survey, with 72 CMOs and other brand and retail leaders across a wide spectrum of product and service categories, 34% said that “implementation” was the greatest threat to the brand and retail experience. Fifty-four percent said that “real-time-retail” was their greatest brand-experience hurdle.

Why is “real-time retail” so difficult to implement?

The packaged-goods conundrum. Douwe Bergsma, chief marketing officer of Georgia-Pacific, frames the challenge from a consumer packaged-goods perspective:

    “First, we do not have seamless integration with the in-store environment. The digital experience is not in line with our packaging, or the look and feel of our products when you see them in the store. You could also have the most wonderful digital experience with the consumer and then get placed at the bottom shelf in the store where the consumer does not expect to find your brand.”

Kawasaki & the voice of the brand at retail. Chris Brull, head of marketing for Kawasaki, says apps offer a solution at retail because his brands are sold through dealerships that also sell competitive products. What’s more, because Kawasaki doesn’t own its own stores, sales associates are challenged to know all of the many details of Kawasaki’s line of motorcycles and other recreational vehicles. “When a customer walks into a store, the product has to speak to the customer,” says Brull. The app provides the requisite “voice.”

The point-of-purchase as point-of-pain. A silver-bullet solution for every type of brand is unrealistic, however, given the varied objectives of different product and service categories. In the retail apparel category, former Old Navy CMO Ivan Wicksteed cites a variety of issues, but anchors his focus in “the points-of-pain for the customer.”

Going digital is not the point. In store, the customer challenges center on finding the right size or color, the discomfort of the changing-room experience, and perhaps most of all, the nuisance of check-out. “The experience is not about making it as digital as possible,” Wicksteed says, while noting that digital can be applied to good effect when it comes to delivering the goods. “Not everyone wants to walk out of the store with the product,” he says. “If I can get your purchase back to your hotel room faster than you can get back to your hotel room — which is possible today — then that becomes a compelling proposition.”

The limited value of apps. On the other hand, Wicksteed sees limited value in apps, at least in the apparel category. “An app can help you find what you’re looking for, or serve up specific offers. Price checking is another thing people do on their phones in-store. This makes less sense for Old Navy; you can’t price-check our goods since we’re the only retailer that sells what we sell.”

Uberfication & the untapped potential of back-room technology. As Wicksteed sees it, the best use of digital in-store is “not the sexiest technology” but rather the “back-room technology that tells us where all the physical inventory is, down to an individual product level at any point … If you add that together with the Uber-fication of the world, it means that you’re radically transforming your ability to get goods to people either from a distribution center to a store, or from one store to another store or from a store to a customer.”

Fender & the local dimension of real-time retail. Richard McDonald, EVP of Fender Musical Instruments, looks at the relationship between online and in-store operations through a somewhat different lens, but one that is no less focused on “real-time retail”:

    “What’s interesting about the digital age is that even if you purchased an instrument online you still engage at a local level. That’s why local stores and partnerships are so important to us. Once you get the guitar, you might need someone to help you learn how to play it. You might need repairs. You might want to meet other guitar players. You’re going to want to interact and have your interests fueled. That’s the purpose of these local-market retailers. They are a very, very important part of the overall ecosystem.”

Hointer: a blinding flash of the future. Real-time retail is being brought to futuristic fruition by Nadia Shouraboura, a former head of fulfillment for Amazon and now founder of Hointer, which The Wall Street Journal called “a shop that possibly represents the most radical synthesis of offline and online retail yet.”

At Hointer, shoppers encounter no sales people, just rows of designer jeans, suspended from the ceiling by wires, each tagged with a QR code. Shoppers scan codes of the jeans they like, select the size, and the Hointer app keeps track. Each pair is summarily delivered via a chute to a dressing room. If the jeans aren’t right, shoppers can toss them down another chute, and the pair vanishes from their list.

To buy chosen pairs, shoppers use a touch-screen terminal where they tap a button corresponding to their dressing room and swipe a credit card. On a second trip, with credit card on file, shoppers can skip checkout altogether. At first blush, Hointer sounds like a really cool app, but in fact the real story is what’s going on in the back room.

The rise of the microwarehouse. The technology required to deliver those jeans in about a half a minute is all about logistics and distribution. Shouraboura’s innovation is a “microwarehouse” that networks individual stores into a distribution hub and makes the dream of same-day delivery a reality. In other words, the future of the shopping experience is decentralized and agile distribution. Shouraboura is now applying this concept in grocery.

Up Next:

Part Five: Measurement: The Experience is the Metric
Part Six: Conclusion: Ask Not What Your Shopper Can Do For You

Past Episodes:

Part One: Shopper’s Brand New Bag
Part Two: Culture: Ground Control to Major Tom
Part Three: Innovation: Butch Cassidy & The Brand Experience

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